May 19: Ooh la la L’Egypte

2016/05/19 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1798 Napoleon set sail for Egypt with a fleet of 350 ships, 50,000 soldiers, many excellent hats and a gaggle of archaeologists.

Napoleon took a contingent of representatives from the Institut d’Egypte with him to review and record (and purloin) antiquities as he pressed through the country (on Napoleon’s map, Egypt was actually between France and his actual target, England–go figure).  Among them was the elegantly named diplomat-artist Dominique-Vivant Denon (1747-1825) (say his name out loud: you’ll feel fancier).  Denon sketched wildly as he traveled with the troops; drawing fast, but still with enough time to absorb the awesomeness of the extraordinary sites before him.  No European had seen or captured anything more than a bauble or two (comparatively) from the ancient land before Denon.  He was able to walk through full sanctuaries, taking copious notes and drawing reams of sketches. Even as the temples showed the passage of time since their abandonment millennia before–maybe because they showed it so clearly–he was enthralled.  Of his visit to Dendera he famously wrote that, when inside, he felt he had entered the “sanctuary of the arts and sciences.”

After Napoleon failed to conquer Egypt militarily, Egypt conquered the West aesthetically.  Denon returned to Paris full of lotus blossoms and already known as a serious antiquary; he landed a pretty swish gig as first director of the Musée du Louvre.   In 1802 he published his great work, the Description de l’Égypte.  As the primary monument of the Egyptian Revival, it is the book that launched a craze for countless cemetery monuments, several spooky prisons, as well the occasional wonderful school of medicine; the enthusiasm for things Egyptian lasted through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, when it was given a new jolt of electricity from the findings of a later generation of explorer.

Image: interior of one of the temples, who knows which one, they all look the same (from this source)

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